National Women’s Health Week is a time to celebrate women of all ages, ethnicities, and backgrounds. While there are abounding reasons to celebrate all women every single day, the CDC has declared National Women's Health Week, beginning on Mother’s Day, as an ideal time to encourage women and girls to make their health a priority. The theme for this year is, “Women’s Health, Whole Health: Prevention, Care and Wellbeing."
It's fitting for the holistic approach in the purely planted menopause health series, which emphasizes healthy habits for wellbeing including plant-based eating, movement, stress reduction, and good sleep.
Two common life-altering symptoms of menopause include hot flashes and sleep disruption (often due to hot flashes). Vasomotor symptoms, also known as hot flashes and night sweats, are sudden feelings of warmth in the body, usually experienced most intensely in the face, neck, or chest. Women report that moderate to severe hot flashes and disrupted sleep can decrease mood, productivity and concentration. While hormone replacement therapy can be an effective treatment, helping to decrease hot flashes by 75%, it's not for everyone as it may increase the risk of breast cancer, deep vein thrombosis, heart attack and stroke. Not to mention, everyday side effects of hormone replacement therapy may include headaches, nausea, cramps, bloating, appetite changes, change in libido, nervousness, bleeding, acne, and more. Check out the full list of side effects here and keep reading to learn how certain foods and movement may help to manage symptoms during menopause.
For a full review on how women to reduce hot flashes through diet, check out The Menopause Mindset and How Diet May Reduce Hot Flashes.
In the meantime, here's a short recap of two foods that may help reduce hot flashes — organic soy foods and flaxmeal...
Studies show that whole food soy products that are rich in phytoestrogens, called isoflavones, may prevent hot flashes in some women. Whether or not soy will help you may depend on your ethnicity, overall diet and your microbiome, as new research is showing. When you eat soy, bacteria in your intestines break it down into its more active forms. Not all women are able to use phytoestrogens in soy the same way and it may depend on the bacteria in your gut. Research shows that Asian women who grew up eating soy have much lower rates of hot flashes compared to Americans.
Once consumed, soy isoflavones bind to the same receptors as the estrogen in your body and can mimic the effects of estrogen. One analysis of 19 studies showed that soy isoflavone supplements reduced the severity of hot flashes by over 26 percent compared to a placebo. Another analysis of 10 studies found that plant isoflavones from soy and other sources reduced hot flashes by 11 percent.
Consuming 50–100 mg/day of isoflavones from food may help to relieve hot flashes. Not to mention, soy is chock-full of essential nutrients like plant protein, calcium, iron, fiber, and other essential vitamins and minerals. What does 50–100 mg of isoflavones look like when it comes to food? You can get 50–100 mg os isoflavones by consuming any of the following foods:
1 to 1½ cups soy milk
4–5 ounce tempeh
4–5 ounce tofu
½ cup edamame
3–4 tablespoons miso
¼-1/2 cup soy nuts
Soy is not the only phytoestrogen rock star. Beans and lentils are also good sources of isoflavones.
Flax is another plant superstar! It's chock-full of different type of phytoestrogens called lignans, which have been shown to lower the risk of heart disease, menopausal symptoms, osteoporosis and breast cancer. One study found that women who experienced at least 14 hot flashes per week, and who added 4 tablespoons of flax meal per day to their diet for 6 weeks, decreased daily hot flash frequency by 50 percent and dropped intensity by 57 percent.
Is soy better than hormone replacement therapy?
Although some studies show that soy isoflavones may reduce the number and severity of hot flashes, soy may not work as quickly as hormone replacement therapy (HRT). Soy products may take several weeks or more to reach their maximal benefit if you're not currently consuming them.
For example, a 2015 review found that soy isoflavones take more than 13 weeks to reach just half of their maximum effect. Traditional hormone therapy, on the other hand, takes about three weeks to show the same benefit.
In one study, soy seemed pretty comparable in terms of reducing hot flashes, muscle and joint pain, and vaginal dryness, compared to placebo. In another study, soy did better than placebo, but estrogen and progesterone therapy did better than them both.
However, in a recent study, researchers found that a low fat, plant-based diet rich in soy was as effective as hormone replacement therapy for reducing hot flashes.
Hormone replacement therapy may decrease hot flashes by 75%, but if you prefer to try the natural route, plan ahead and start incorporating organic soy products into your diet before you reach your peak hot flash time. Unlike HRT, soy has the benefit of not increasing cancer, heart disease, and stroke risk. In fact, soy has been shown to reduce the risk of heart disease and certain types of cancer, like breast cancer, so it certainly may be worth trying if you are experiencing hot flashes. Whenever possible, choose organic forms of soy, like soybeans, tofu, tempeh, soy milk, and miso. Adding flaxmeal to your morning oatmeal or sprinkling it over your grain bowl or salad can be another great option that may help with menopausal symptoms.
Movement's Effect on Menopause and Metabolism
Metabolism can slow down with age and weight gain is a common verbalized challenge experienced by women going through perimenopause and menopause. The decline in estrogen can also increase cholesterol and triglyceride levels, affecting women's risk of cardiovascular disease. Surveys show that women exercise less during menopause, when, in fact, it may be one of the most important lifestyle factors for women during this time since exercise supports healthy metabolism and decreased biomarkers associated with cardiovascular disease. Exercise and a healthy diet during the menopause stages are essential in mitigating unhealthy fat accumulation and preserving metabolic health, both of which can enhance quality of life and reduce the risk of lifestyle diseases like heart disease, diabetes and breast cancer.
In one study, researchers evaluated women at all stages of menopause (premenopause, perimenopause, and postmenopause) to understand their metabolism at rest and during exercise in conjunction with their body composition. They also looked at relationships between body composition and lifestyle factors such as diet, physical inactivity, and sleep, which are key contributors to changes in body composition and metabolism. The researchers found that the perimenopausal group experienced elevated percentages of fat, lower lean body mass, and a shift toward central obesity (the "menopause middle!"). The biggest changes in weight gain (in the form of fat deposition) happened during premenopause and perimenopause, indicating that the transition towards menopause triggers the body weight changes. Research shows these body weight changes may stabilize later during postmenopause.
That said, despite moderate-intensity exercise, researchers found that metabolism of postmenopausal women, at rest and during exercise, was least efficient compared to peri- and pre-menopausal women. To support a healthy metabolism at rest and during exercise, it is suggested that pre-, peri-, and postmenopausal women engage in resistance exercise to maintain muscle mass in addition to aerobic activity to boost oxygen capacity.
One large review looked at 38 different studies and various forms of exercise on cardiovascular risk factors and found that water exercise had the greatest effect on lowering triglycerides and blood pressure while a combination of aerobic exercise and resistance training improved HDL (good) cholesterol, and resistance training alone decreased LDL (bad) cholesterol. Another review, looking at 16 research studies, found that both water-based exercise and land-based exercise improved muscle strength, aerobic capacity, flexibility, agility, and bone mineral density in postmenopausal women.
One study published in Menopause, found that women who danced three times a week changed their body composition and metabolic health all while boosting their self-esteem. Dancing for four months led to lower triglycerides, higher HDL cholesterol levels, increased ability to exercise and better self-image. (I'll wait while you go find a local dance class.)
Clearly there may be benefits to all kinds of movement!
Movement can not only support healthy metabolism and heart health markers, but it may also support strong bones, mobile joints, improved sleep, boosted self esteem, and reduced hot flashes ...
Movement's Affect on Hot Flashes
Research shows that women who stay active can significantly improve their quality of life by decreasing anxiety, boosting mood and well-being, while those who are inactive are more prone to depressed symptoms, poor concentration and hot flashes during menopause. Historically, most studies show that aerobic exercise may boost mood and mental well-being, but, more recently, studies have looked at resistance training and menopause symptoms, including hot flashes.
One recent study showed that resistance training three times a week for 15 weeks reduced hot flashes and improved sleep.
One randomized controlled study demonstrated a 50% reduction in hot flashes with resistant training, concluding that endorphins released during training may play a part in decreasing the physiological trigger that creates hot flashes.
The Bottom Line
While it may be tempting to skip exercise while you're experiencing hot flashes and not getting enough sleep, research shows that there are clear benefits to movement, even if it means putting on your favorite tunes and dancing in your kitchen for a few minutes. (By the way, those cans of beans in your cabinet can easily serve as weights while you dance!)
The thought of a rigorous exercise program may feel daunting at times, but try to find what resonates with you. If going to a gym to get out of the house and engage in the social aspect feels good to you then join a gym. If a home-based program that involves some hand weights is more like your cup of tea, then set aside time to make that a part of your routine. If walking your dog while dropping down into some pushups and squats during the walk sounds like fun, then go for it! (And perhaps you'll inspire some fellow dog walkers.)
Movement of all kinds is better than no movement at all. Carve out any time you can to get your heart rate up and do a little weight-bearing exercise to help ease the transition into menopause and beyond.
Try plant-based recipes to help you sleep better, support metabolism and reduce hot flashes here.